Modern Catholic Social Teaching

Commentaries and Interpretations, 2d ed.

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Kenneth R. Himes
  • Washington DC: 
    Georgetown University Press
    , January
     672 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The second edition of Modern Catholic Social Teaching: Commentaries and Interpretations provides a thorough and useful survey of Roman Catholic social teaching from the first social encyclical in 1891, to Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum, to the current papacy. The volume aims to serve as a reader for those seeking to engage with the trajectory of institutional Catholic social teaching as well as a number of individual social encyclicals and, in many ways, itdoes just that.

Part 1 explains the foundations leading to Rerum Novarum and the development of Catholic social teaching as a discrete theological category. Part 1 offers insight into the ecclesial and biblical traditions from which the Catholic Church draws, as well as the historical context in which Rerum Novarum was written and subsequent social teaching developed. This section does well to draw attention to whether Rerum Novarum can justifiably be considered the catalyst for Catholic social teaching and to the debate over which letters and encyclicals are considered institutional social teaching.

Part 2 provides comprehensive commentaries on sixteen central documents related to Catholic social teaching. The contributors to this volume are successful in providing extensive references for readers interested in researching different social documents. The task of selecting which texts to include and omit was no easy one, and contested texts such as Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae were omitted in an effort to avoid emphasizing particular topics or papacies. Even so, the volume is intended to serve as a reference and the commentaries can be read separately. Part 2 also weaves together the historical development of Catholic social teaching. Including earlier documents, such as Rerum Novarum and Populorum Progressio, as well as later documents that draw on these earlier ones, such as Centesimus Annus and Caritas in Vertate, succinctly demonstrates how Catholic social teaching has developed over time.

Particularly beneficial to the new edition of Modern Catholic Social Teaching is the addition of commentaries on Caritas in Vertateand Laudato Si’, released by Benedict XVI and Francis, respectively. Much scholarship on Catholic social teaching focuses on the papacies from Leo XIII to John Paul II. However, Modern Catholic Social Teaching successfully broadens this scope by starting with the foundations that preceded Leo XIII, adding commentaries on the social teachings of Benedict XVI and Francis, and addressing the reception of Catholic social teaching and the role of Catholic social teaching in the future. 

The editors do well to outline the scope of Modern Catholic Social Teaching in the introduction, explaining that although the book focuses on institutional Catholic social teachings, Catholic social teachings are dynamic by nature and engage the Magisterium, the global Church, and clergy and laity alike. The editors’ careful selection of the term “teaching” as opposed to “doctrine” pays credence to this dialectical element. Given the dialogical nature of Catholic social teaching, with encyclicals usually published as a response to societal moments, Modern Catholic Social Teaching would have benefited from further engagement with the implications of institutional social teachings. For example, the volume mentions the role of women in the introduction and briefly throughout the body of the book. However, due to the constraints of the organizational approach of the book, insufficient attention is paid to the Church’s position towards systematically oppressed social groups such as women, people of color, sexual minorities, and so forth. 

Part 3 addresses some of these concerns in terms of Catholic social teaching’s reception in the United States, an arena which is also influential in social movements involving the above-mentioned and other socially marginalized groups. However, I would be interested to see an even sharper assessment of the unilateral authority of institutional social teaching and the ways in which this type of authority affects laity, non-Catholics, and the wider society that social teaching is meant to address. In addition, although organizing the commentary section of the book by document provides an undoubtedly useful reference for those seeking to engage individual texts, Catholic social thought can be assessed in terms of major themes and ideas. Commentaries that organize and assess some of the major themes of Catholic social thought, such as human dignity, pluralism, war, and contemporary gender theory, to name only a few, would also serve as a fruitful guide to researchers aiming to better equip themselves with the depth of knowledge that a volume like Modern Catholic Social Teaching provides. 

Modern Catholic Social Teaching offers a thorough examination and analysis of Catholic social teaching, discussing both its roots and the future shape of Catholic social teaching. Any scholars looking to apprise themselves of the development or trajectory of Catholic social teaching or any of the sixteen individual documents analyzed in the volume will certainly benefit from reading this book. Scope and length permit neither lengthy discussion of the role of the institutional Church as not only a defender of the socially marginalized, but also a power that at times has contributed to their oppression, nor analysis of social teaching by theme rather than document. Nonetheless, Modern Catholic Social Teaching is a profoundly informative book that effectively negotiates institutional as well as dissenting voices within the realm of Catholic social thought.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Danielle Dempsey is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside.

Date of Review: 
August 16, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth R. Himes, OFM, is Professor in the Theology Department, Boston College. He is the author of several books, including Targeted Killing and the Ethics of Drone WarfareResponses to 101 Questions on Catholic Social Teaching, and Christianity and the Political Order: Conflict, Cooptation, and Cooperation.


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